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Lengthy Vagos Motorcycle Club trial ends with acquittals

Updated February 25, 2020 - 5:25 am

Eight members of the Vagos Motorcycle Club were acquitted of all charges Monday after a lengthy racketeering trial that could have landed them in prison for life.

“This is what happens when the government tries to put people away with tricks and liars,” defense attorney Dan Hill said shortly after the verdicts were announced.

Jurors deliberated for about 17 hours over four days before returning the verdicts on federal charges of conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise, murder and using a firearm to commit murder.

The Las Vegas trial, which began in July, was centered around the fatal September 2011 shooting of a rival Hells Angels leader inside a Sparks casino during Street Vibrations, an annual motorcycle festival.

“I’m grateful for the court’s time, the jury’s consideration and the diligent work of the assistant U.S. attorneys toward a verdict that the jury found to be fair and just,” said Nicholas Trutanich, the U.S. attorney for Nevada.

Asked if he believed the verdicts were fair and just, Trutanich said, “The jury has spoken.”

Jurors declined to be interviewed by a reporter Monday as they left the courthouse.

Among those on trial were Vagos leaders Pastor “Tata” Palafox, Albert “Al” Lopez, Albert “Dragon Man” Perez, James “Jimbo” Gillespie and Ernesto “Romeo” Gonzalez. Prosecutors said Gonzalez fired the fatal shots in 2011.

At one point or another, according to federal authorities, each of the leaders held rank on an international, regional or chapter level of the biker club, which was formed in San Bernardino, California, in the mid-1960s and since has spread to at least seven countries. It is said to have 75 chapters in the United States, 54 of which are in Nevada and California.

Vagos members Bradley “Candy Man” Campos, Cesar “C” Morales and Diego “Boo” Garcia also were on trial.

The eight men were among nearly two dozen reputed Vagos members indicted in 2017 in connection with a laundry list of violent crimes characterized as a broad criminal conspiracy dating to 2005 and spanning more than a decade. The sweeping 12-count indictment revealed for the first time an extensive, yearslong law enforcement operation through which state and federal authorities worked undercover to infiltrate an exclusive society and move up the hierarchy.

Trials for remaining defendants are scheduled for later this year.

Emotional reaction

On Monday afternoon, the first “not guilty” uttered by U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro was met with an audible gasp inside the courtroom, followed by tears from some of the defendants, their family members seated in the courtroom gallery and even a few of the defense attorneys.

Among those crying in the gallery was Perez’s wife of 26 years, Annette. The two have a 24-year-old son together.

“If you knew these guys, they’re really great guys,” she later told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

As defense attorneys later waited outside the courthouse in downtown Las Vegas for their clients, Mark Fleming, who represented Lopez, called the trial “disgraceful” for the prosecution.

“This is the result one would expect when the government bases its entire case on the testimony of known perjurers,” Fleming said. “We’re just thankful that the jury saw right through it and did the right thing.”

Vagos member Gary “Jabbers” Rudnick, the government’s star witness, admitted in September to lying under oath when he said the 2011 killing was a planned attack authorized by Palafox, then-international president of the club.

The government disavowed Rudnick, who had received immunity for his testimony against his former allies, but stood by its theory through the end of the trial that the shooting was an assassination involving a coordinated cover-up and threats of retaliation against members who cooperated with law enforcement.

‘It was never a murder’

A far cry from the murder described by prosecutors, defense attorneys argued that Gonzalez was acting to stop two active shooters when he fired at the Hells Angels leader, who after picking a fight with Vagos members drew his weapon first and began shooting alongside another Hells Angels member.

Ernesto Gonzalez (Illustration by Severiano del Castillo Galvan)
Ernesto Gonzalez (Illustration by Severiano del Castillo Galvan)

“The truth of what happened came out,” Michael Kennedy, who represented Gonzalez, said Monday. “It was never a murder. It was always a sudden quarrel in which he acted in defense of others.”

By 4 p.m. Monday, all but one of the defendants had walked out of the courthouse as free men, some raising their fists in victory as the attorneys clapped and cheered. Perez will remain in custody due to an unrelated case in Los Angeles.

Eventually, Gillespie, one of the Vagos leaders, quietly sneaked away with his attorney, Jess Marchese.

The 72-year-old man with long, snow-white hair often kept pulled back in a ponytail, had just one last request for his lawyer: a bus ticket home to Northern California and a stuffed animal for his 9-year-old granddaughter, who thinks her grandfather has been in Brazil the last half-year.

“Gotta love Jimbo,” Marchese told the Review-Journal. “Doesn’t want to go out. Just wanted me to get him a bus ticket ASAP.”

But before heading home, Gillespie planned to enjoy a simple celebratory dinner alone Monday evening at a steakhouse on Main Street. And on Tuesday morning, he planned to surprise his granddaughter at school.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer David Ferrara contributed to this report.

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